The Housing Collective: The Internal Transition from CFO to CEO

7 mins
Tom Neely

By Tom Neely

In this second post exploring our recent Housing Collective podcast with Sarah Jones, CEO of Anchor, we discuss making the transition from CFO to CEO, particularly as more first-time CEOs are being appointed than ever before.

In the first episode of our new Housing Collective podcast, delivered in partnership with crowdfunding platform Beam, Neemar Search founder Tom Neely caught up with Sarah Jones, Chief Executive Officer of Anchor, learning some valuable lessons on the leadership qualities that have seen her transition from a career in the private sector to that of Chief Financial Officer and—as of 2022—CEO of the largest not-for-profit provider of housing and care for over-55s in England, all as an internal candidate. 

She provides vital advice for those looking at making a career change into leadership as an internal candidate and achieving success within the person-centred housing sector, or any industry for that matter.

Acing the Internal Transition

Coming from a background in commercial finance, Sarah needed to build trust with her colleagues, exploring the question of what it meant to be part of a not-for-profit organisation. This allowed her to focus on delivering a surplus which enabled Anchor to do more of the work that they—and their board—wanted to do. 

Sarah notes that it’s important that those executives that are looking to make the internal transition to CEO recognise their strengths and the attributes they bring to their organisations. She highlights that professionals should “...make sure [they] understand [their] own value,” particularly when it comes to comparing themselves to the idealised vision of a CEO—or the other candidates they’re up against—that is likely to have no bearing on reality. 

This is particularly true for female executives, who feel they need to tick every box on an application and meet every criterion for a given role. This is borne out in the data, with women applying for 20% fewer jobs than their male counterparts based on a LinkedIn survey. Imposter syndrome can creep in for any professional, but women are particularly susceptible—which is why Sarah’s message of having confidence in your own abilities is so vital when thinking of making a career change, whether into the housing industry or any other field. 

Whilst she admits that she was never a stereotypical CFO, the transition to the role of CEO was one which required Sarah to relinquish some of the control she had within a finance position, and instead inspire others to share and champion the vision and mission of her organisation. She notes that:

“As CEO, you find yourself accountable for everything but responsible for nothing, and that’s very different from being a CFO... As a CEO, you have to bring people along with you.

Authenticity and transparency are crucial to Sarah’s work as a CEO, particularly given her responsibilities to the organisation, its board, and its internal and external stakeholders. Her internal leadership team are driven by a clear picture of how close they are to meeting their targets, balancing long-term operational and strategic goals with the primary focus of Anchor of improving the day-to-day lives of their residents: 

“I hold myself and the leadership team to account… it’s about understanding where we are—for good or ill—and being very honest about that.

We set targets and then report performance against those targets… that sounds pretty straightforward, but you have to remember that we have to look at things holistically… there are myriad case studies where very specific targets have been set, and there have been unintended consequences.”

Economic uncertainty, the ongoing UK housing crisis, and wider challenges facing the housing industry, such as high inflation, have been a vindication of the fundamental principles at the heart of everything that Anchor does. 

This has enabled Sarah to foster a person-centred environment in which all individuals that interact with Anchor, from colleagues to residents, are able to thrive and, by providing this environment, build resilience.

Building Trust as a New CEO

Her advice to CEOs is that there’s no substitute for getting out and speaking to residents and colleagues to understand their unique experiences. 

Even in her difficult conversations with residents, the best part of Sarah's Chief Executive role is in communicating with the individuals she’s serving and seeing first-hand the difference that can be made through the empathetic care and support that Anchor offers. When asked why she chose to work in the sector, Sarah responded: 

“Colleagues and residents. That’s my why.”

Indeed, her answers to Neemar’s questions highlight that the most valuable leadership lesson she’s learned within her career was that of principles: in her words, “...if you have them, stick to them.” 

Her advice for aspiring leaders is to go for it, have confidence in their own abilities and values, and always be authentic. She approaches leadership from a position of radical candour, cutting through the fabrications and misinformation that can sometimes surround the professional life of an executive to create an environment of guidance, mentorship, and openness in which all colleagues can achieve their goals and find their purpose.

Anchor is focused on building communities through a person-centred, supportive approach that allows people to live their best possible lives. Sarah’s mission offers valuable lessons to any executive making a career change or looking to transition internally into a business leadership role within the housing industry, particularly as the UK housing crisis continues to impact the social and private sectors. 

Despite only being CEO of Anchor for just short of a year as of the time of our conversation with her, Sarah’s commitment to the duties of a business leader within the housing industry set an example for us all. 

Her knowledge and advice provide valuable leadership lessons for those making a career change or looking at opportunities for internal mobility within their organisations. 

Her focus on person-centred care and the significance of openness and authenticity underscores the role that organisations like Anchor have in solving the UK housing crisis. She emphasises the importance of recognising personal values, having belief in your abilities as you take the leap into an executive leadership role, and advocating for residents and colleagues through holistic approaches to the challenges of the housing industry, ensuring that individuals continue to have autonomy and choice as they grow older.

Sarah’s journey from CFO to CEO highlights the importance of recognising one’s own strengths and values when pursuing internal career opportunities. She emphasises the need for confidence, especially for women who often feel greater pressure to meet unrealistic expectations. 

As a CEO, Sarah draws on her ability to inspire others and foster an environment of authenticity and transparency to build trust with her colleagues at all levels of seniority. This is exemplified in her commitment to person-centred care and her dedication to the residents which Anchor serves, exemplifying the essential role that leadership plays within the housing industry. 

Her knowledge and advice serve as valuable guidance for aspiring leaders seeking to make a career change or take advantage of opportunities for internal mobility, whilst at the same time promoting empathy, openness, and autonomy within the housing industry.

Specialist Housing Executive Search Firm

Whether you’re a candidate making a career change or you’re a business leader searching for a seasoned expert within the housing industry, Neemar Search is here to support you.

If you’re interested in learning more about the challenges facing the housing sector or you’re searching for more leadership lessons, join the Housing Collective Newsletter for the latest expert insights.

We’re dedicated to partnering with leading not-for-profit housing associations, local authorities, arms-length management organisations (ALMOS), and for-profit enterprises to drive change within the industry through executive staffing solutions. Whether you require recruitment expertise within corporate or customer services, asset management, development, or finance, we can help you to make an impact. Contact us to learn more about our specialist hiring services within the housing industry. 

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